The moment Tara Jane O’Reilly sat down on the tube at Baker Street station, a photo of a penis was Airdropped to her phone. As the only woman sitting in a packed carriage at 10 p.m., O’Reilly says she felt targeted.
“Like as though as soon as they saw a new iPhone connect they knew it would be my phone,” she says.
O’Reilly declined the Airdrop request and said she felt “shocked and grossed out.” But it didn’t end there. “Then it popped up again, and again. So I started to go into my settings but the fucking photo kept popping up until I finally switched Airdrop off,” she says. “I couldn’t work out who did it — the tube was relatively packed and it was just really grim.” A week later, O’Reilly says she is feeling slightly unsettled by her experience.
The reality of cyberflashing can be terrifying and violating, as O’Reilly’s experience shows. But it’s not as uncommon as you might think. Per YouGov data, 41 percent of women aged between 18 and 36 “have been sent an unsolicited photo of a man’s private parts.”
Often the language we use to describe this behaviour betrays a levity that’s out of step with the serious nature of this sexual offence. While the term cyberflashing might not be one you’re overly familiar with, you’ll have likely heard mention of “unsolicited dick pics” or nudes. Cyberflashing refers to the act of sending unsolicited sexually explicit photos to strangers using Apple AirDrop in public places — as well as via messaging apps like Snapchat, Twitter, and dating apps. Researchers say that women are often overwhelmingly the target of this gendered act.
The default response to any article containing the word “dick pic” — be it unsolicited or solicited — is unbridled mirth.
But does this term really do justice to what is in actual fact a very upsetting crime? And are we taking this crime seriously? When I asked on Twitter if anyone had received an Airdropped unsolicited nude. The response? A string of “looool” DMs, “do people really do this”, along with the tears-of-laughter emoji. Was I missing a joke? But that response wasn’t surprising in the least. In my experience as a reporter, the default response to any article containing the word “dick pic” — be it unsolicited or solicited — is unbridled mirth. The prevalence of this response recently made me question the terminology I’ve used in my reporting — and whether we should all dispense with the term “unsolicited dick pic”?
Sophie Gallagher, a journalist at HuffPost UK who reports on cyberflashing, says the term dick pics “belittles it and makes it sound humorous.” She believes this speaks volumes about how women are socialised to cope with this type of behaviour.
“Women are very much conditioned to laugh it off or make a joke or to deal with it in that dark humour way, so the language we use to talk about it is massively belittling,” says Gallagher.
In her experience reporting on this issue, Gallagher says she’s encountered men dismissing cyberflashing as “making a mountain out of a molehill.” But she says the term is an objective description of flashing that happens in an online setting. “This is exactly the same as offline flashing, just it’s done online. It’s exactly the same behaviour, just it happens in a different way,” she adds.
Clare McGlynn, professor at Durham Law School and an expert in the legal regulation of image-based sexual abuse, agrees that referring to cyberflashing as simply dick pics can “sensationalise and minimise” this crime.
“The only reason I hesitate is that actually many people think that the term flashing itself minimises exposure,” says McGlynn. She says that physical flashing can be highly traumatic for those who experience it, but it’s a criminal offence that’s not “taken terribly seriously.”
What’s in a name?
When it comes to discussions of sexual violence, our word choices are crucial.
A recent analysis of media reporting on sexual violence during the #MeToo movement by Sophie Hindes and Dr. Bianca Fileborn looked at the terminology used by Australian media outlets when reporting on the Aziz Ansari sexual misconduct allegations. They found that publications framed the case as “non-violence” by using language “that consistently downplayed and minimised the nature of the encounter as something other than sexual violence.” Hindes and Fileborn found that “colloquial and ambiguous” wording lessened the seriousness of the allegations against Ansari.
Using vague, colloquial wording in this context can result in tangible consequences for survivors of sexual violence, Hindes, a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne whose research focuses on sexual consent in queer relationships, tells me.
“When language is used that minimises an act it can have significant impacts including people not taking victim/survivors seriously, certain behaviours being excused as ‘not a big deal,’ and consequently people may find sexual consent difficult to navigate in practice as non-consensual behaviours become minimised and normalised through language,” says Hindes.
“When language is used that minimises an act it can have significant impacts…”
In the aftermath of the publication of sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the New York Times responded to readers’ concerns about the language it used to describe sexual assault. “The easiest way to report claims of sexual harassment or assault without incurring legal liability is to cite the language contained in legal documents, such as complaints or police reports,” writes the Times’ First Amendment fellow Christina Koningisor.
Using the specific legal terminology to describe sexual assault is ideal. But, what if the law doesn’t officially recognise the assault in question as a criminal offence?
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The problem with cyberflashing is that our laws — much like our language — are pretty murky. In England and Wales, the law does not currently cover cyberflashing, but Scotland introduced a law against it in 2010. In England and Wales, if you report cyberflashing to the police, there are a number of existing offences under which the perpetrator could be prosecuted, according to Dr. Yvette Russell, senior lecturer in Law and Feminist Theory at University of Bristol Law School.
“These include the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, some provisions in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and other legislations governing malicious communications,” says Russell. “However, prosecution under these provisions is unusual in these cases and far from consistent.” As Siân Brooke, DPhil researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, tells me, “there is no official definition of cyber-flashing within UK legislation.”
What about cyberflashing laws elsewhere? In New York City, a bill was proposed in late 2018 with a view to making it illegal to send “an unsolicited sexually explicit video or image to another person with intent to harass, annoy or alarm such other person.” The law would make cyberflashing punishable by up to one year in prison, or a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
In Australia, there is no specific anti-cyberflashing law but cyberflashers could be prosecuted under the Telecommunications Act 1997, which prohibits the use of a carriage service to “harass, offend or intimidate another person.” In Canada, academics say cyberflashing doesn’t “fit nearly under any of our criminal laws” and are calling for clarification of existing laws or a new, specific offence.
In Singapore, a bill was passed in May that made cyberflashing illegal and punishable by up to a year in prison or a fine. In Japan, where cyberflashers are referred to as “AirDrop chikan” — or “AirDrop perverts” — there have been at least two arrests for cyberflashing.
Cyberflashing can be very upsetting and traumatic for those who experience it.
Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto
So, what’s next to address this?
The Law Commission announced in June that it will be conducting a review of the existing criminal law to consider whether survivors are being adequately protected from cyberflashing in addition to other image-based behaviours like deepfake pornography, and upskirting. The Law Commission won’t be reporting back on its findings, however, until 2021. And McGlynn says you’d probably not see any legislation on it until 2022 at the earliest. “That’s simply too long to wait in my opinion,” McGlynn says. When I put those concerns to The Law Commission they responded stating: “This is a complicated area of law and will take time to get right.”
HuffPost’s Gallagher has spoken to over 70 women who were cyberflashed and each of them said it really upset them. “It’s really easy to dismiss it as lesser than traditional flashing but actually when you speak to women, your phone is a private space and it’s a massive invasion of that,” says Gallagher. Some of the women she interviewed had been flashed both online and offline. “All of them said both were equally as bad. Maybe in slightly different ways, but they both had an impact.”
Online flashing is not being taken as seriously as offline flashing. Brooke believes this is because “society and the law just sees ‘unsolicited dick pics’ as an annoying internet phenomenon, that is simply not ‘real’.” Often online commentary surrounding the act focuses on what the recipient of the offensive image should have done differently — but not on the actions of the perpetrator.
“The language we often see surrounding these violent acts are tantamount to victim blaming.”
“The language we often see surrounding these violent acts are tantamount to victim blaming,” says Brooke. “Responses such as ‘well, don’t look,’ ‘just switch it off,’ ‘log off.'”
This reinforces the problematic idea that the responsibility lies with the recipient, and not with those who sent the image. “This only serves to validate cyberflashing and see it as the victim’s fault for communicating online,” adds Brooke.
You need only read O’Reilly’s experience of being a lone female in a late-night tube carriage while her phone is bombarded with obscene images, to know that the term “unsolicited dick pics” isn’t an accurate descriptor. Cyberflashing is not a simple case of receiving something you didn’t request. It’s not a misunderstanding. Cyberflashing is an act of sexual violence. And we should be using words that properly convey that.